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Like many other literatures, Urdu literature begins with poetry. But, like the modern languages of Europe, Urdu had to establish itself as a literary medium in the face of a convention that only a classical language could be a fit vehicle for poetry. In medieval Western Europe this language was Latin. In India it was Persian, and by comparison with Europe it was late in the day that the modern language won out. In northern India, it was not until the early decades of the eighteenth century that Urdu became accepted as the medium of poetry. The change came about because many Indians had begun to feel that they could not express themselves as adequately as they would wish in Persian, a language that was not their own; and major poets now appeared who made Urdu the medium of their work. Nevertheless, until well into the twentieth century there were Urdu-speaking poets who continued to write some of their verse in Persian as well, just as in England Milton wrote verse in Latin as well as English. All of them were completely familiar with the literary heritage of Persian, and followed Persian models in both genres and the established themes of classical poetry. Thus Urdu poetry represents, in a sense, a further development of a literature already centuries old, with only the language changed.
For a century after poets were writing in Urdu, Persian remained the only acceptable medium for serious writing in prose. It could be the vehicle of powerful feeling, but it was a highly stylized form of Persian which employed all manner of literary devices—wordplay, alliteration, antithesis, balancing rhythms and rhymes, and many more. What little Urdu prose there was, imitated this style of writing. Clearly, this could not be an all-purpose prose, able to meet all the varied needs of modern writing. For that it was necessary to establish the convention that the spoken language of educated people—Urdu—should be accepted as the medium of written literature, prose as well as poetry. When that change came about, it was partly as a response to a new colonizing presence, the British. This process is described in the section on ‘The New Light’.
[Urdu] literature is not primarily a religious literature. Millions of non-Muslims have been able to read and write Urdu, and millions more have been able to understand and speak it. It is now the vehicle of one of the richest literatures of the subcontinent, in both poetry and prose. Its poetry has been made popular through song, and carries universal messages which have touched people of all backgrounds. Its prose offers a wealth of stories, and insights into a way of life.
—From the ‘Introduction’ by Ralph Russell
It was after we’d come to Aligarh that I became day by day more aware of Azim’s presence. God knows why he suddenly became interested in me. I’d always preferred my older brother, Nasim. Even when he hit me, there was still pleasure in it because he’d also give me money and sweets. Azim gave me neither money nor slaps; he talked to me seriously. And then he began to teach me History and English. I don’t remember how it started; all I remember is that in the evenings when he came back exhausted from the day’s work, he’d go and lie on the string bed on his verandah and say to me, ‘Come on, read. Loudly.’ Then he would correct my translation, and give me dictation, and after that we would talk. I don’t remember what it was we began talking about. Later on he used to tell me things about the Traditions and the Quran. His teaching method was an odd one. He’d give me a novel and say, ‘Go and translate it. From English into Urdu, and from Urdu into English.’ Ten pages at a time he’d set for me to translate. For me, there were several advantages in this approach—one was that before I could translate the novel I had to finish reading it, and it’s from that time that I became so intensely absorbed in reading novels. I would lie awake the entire night reading stories and novels. But in those days they were all wasted on me—I hadn’t a clue what they meant. So I’ve had to read them all again. Hardy was the first novelist that, as Azim said, I drank to the last drop.
In those days Azim made such an impression on me that I became just an echo of him. ‘It’s Mansur’s voice, but God who speaks.’ Whenever I opened my mouth the others in the family would tease me that it wasn’t me but Azim speaking, and Azim himself took advantage of my naivete. When there was something he didn’t want to say himself he would carefully instill it into my head, and I would immediately blurt it out. In those days the family used to say that he put me up to all sorts of things. Even before, I had already been headstrong and obstinate; and now under his encouragement I became even more uncontrollable.
—From ‘Hellbound’ by Ismat Chughtai
A nobleman had been told by a Brahmin that anyone who saw a pair of crows sitting together early in the morning, before the sun was up, would have very good luck. So he ordered one of his servants to look out for this, and when he saw a pair to call him at once. The servant kept a lookout and one day saw a pair sitting there. He told his master at once, who got up and came out of the house, tying his loincloth. But meanwhile one crow had flown off. He was very annoyed and told his servant, ‘You useless wretch, you’re dismissed. Get out!’ The servant replied, ‘I saw the two crows, and look what has happened to me! You should be glad that you did not see them.’ His master laughed, and kept him on.
[In Urdu, the Knave in a set of playing cards is called the Slave.]
A king once asked one of his slaves who was a jester if he could play cards. ‘No,’ he said, ‘I can’t even tell the difference between a King and a Slave.’
A nobleman was having sexual intercourse with his maidservant, but could not maintain an erection. He told her to take his penis in her hand and help him. As she did so he farted. The maidservant laughed. He said, ‘What’s there to laugh about? I’m not Sulaiman [Solomon] that I can command the wind.’ ‘No,’ she said, ‘and I’m not Isa [Jesus] that I can bring the dead to life.’
—From ‘Outwitting the Powerful’ in the Popular Literature section.
Ghalib defined poetry as ‘the creation of meaning, not the matching of rhymes’. Mir felt the same. Muhammad Husain Azad, who wrote lively accounts of the lives of the great poets, tells us how Mir responded to a young nobleman who requested him to initiate him into the art of poetry. Mir said, ‘Young sir, you are a noble and the son of a noble. Practice horsemanship and archery and the handling of the lance. Poetry is a task for men whose hearts have been seared by the fire of love and pierced by the wounds of grief.’
Mir speaks often of physical desolation and spiritual decline:
This age is not like that which went before it
The times have changed, the earth and sky have changed.
is ahd ko na jaaniye agla sa ahd Mir
vo daur ab nahin, vo zameen aasmaan nahin
Here where the thorns grow, spreading over mounds of dust and ruins
These eyes of mine once saw the gardens blooming in the spring.
jis ja ki khas o khaar ke ab dher lage hain
yahaan hum ne inhi aankhon se dekhi hain bahaaren
Here in this city where the dust drifts in deserted lanes
A man might come and fill his lap with gold in days gone by.
udti hai khak sheher ki galiyon mein ab jahaan
sona liya hai god mein bhar kar vahin se hum
These eyes saw only yesterday house after house
Where here and there a ruined wall or doorway stands.
kal dekhte humaare baste thhe ghar baraabar
ab ye kahin kahin jo deevaar o dar rahe hain
—From the section ‘Love Poetry: The Ghazals of Mir and Ghalib’